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The Quiet Earth – film review

October 10, 2014

THE QUIET EARTH

Last Man Standing.

the quiet earth beach

Directed by Geoff Murphy. Screenplay by Bill Baer & Bruno Lawrence & Sam Pillsbury, based on the novel by Craig Harrison. Starring Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge and Pete Smith. Year of release: 1985. Running time: 91 minutes.

There is a sub-genre of filmed sci-fi which I like to call ‘empty city movies’. Stories which feature a character or characters who, for whatever reason, find themselves wandering the streets of an abandoned city – completely alone. Other examples of this may include The World, The Flesh And The Devil, The Omega Man and Night     Of The Comet. But perhaps the best-loved example of this type of movie would be Geoff Murphy’s intelligent sci-fi thriller from1985, The Quiet Earth – an expression of boyhood fantasies of what it might be like to survive say a neutron bomb blast (the neutron bomb being a nuclear weapon designed to kill all living things – but leave buildings intact) – and what possibilities might be on offer to someone who has free reign to do whatever they want in a city completely devoid of other people; being free to live wherever you choose, embarking on outrageous shopping sprees while not having to pay and driving fast cars recklessly through vacant city streets without     fear of hitting pedestrians or being booked by cops.

In The Quiet Earth, Bruno Lawrence plays Zac Hobson, a New Zealand scientist     who awakens one morning to find he is seemingly all alone in the world. A joint US experiment he was involved in (known as Project Flashlight) has caused everyone     on Earth to vanish in an instant. As he struggles to come to terms with his isolation and maintain his sanity, Zac realizes he may not be alone after all and the Flashlight effect is soon to be repeated.

Director Geoff Murphy (who began his film career as a special effects designer) has been described as something of a pioneer of the New Zealand film industry – with his hugely entertaining 1980 road movie Goodbye Pork Pie being that country’s first locally-produced feature to become an instant domestic hit with local auds. He would later go on to become the go-to-guy for sequels in Hollywood, directing such low-rent action fare as Young Guns II, Fortress II and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory – although Freejack would probably be his most fondly-remembered US feature. It comes as no surprise then, looking back at his early work, that Murphy would continue helming Hollywood actioners – as he demonstrates great flare for orchestrating well-staged and coherent action sequences (especially vehicular mayhem, as seen in both Pork Pie and The Quiet Earth).

Co-writer and co-producer Sam Pillsbury had optioned the source novel shortly after   it was published, and was originally slated to direct, but found difficulty in dealing with the dream-like aspects of the book and adapting it for the screen. So he stepped aside as director and hired Geoff Murphy to helm the piece instead. Budgeted at just USD $1 million, The Quiet Earth looks far more expensive than it actually is; thanks largely to Josephine Ford’s production design and Rick Kofoed’s art direction. The scene where Zac stumbles upon the wreckage of an airliner which has seemingly dropped out of the skies with (eerily) no-one on board brings to mind a similar scene with Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War Of The Worlds – albeit on a fraction of the budget of that particular film. But it is Geoff Murphy’s assured staging of an empty world which creates a palpable sense of abandonment and desolation which permeates every frame. The sequences filmed in the city of Auckland are particularly impressive when one considers just how problematic it must have been to achieve this convincing sense of eerie desolation – especially on such a large scale. As co-producer Don Reynolds revealed back in 1986, “It was very difficult. We had to film the city with no people, no traffic, no birds and no yachts in the harbor. The real problem was to keep from recording all the sounds in the town, which would give away the existence of life. We had to film on Sunday morning, very early.” Indeed     the sound design by Mike Westgate, Hammond Peek, Gethin Creagh and Martin Oswin must also be applauded for contributing to the overall effect. In terms of visuals, Murphy’s prior experience in the realm of special effects is clearly an advantage when it comes to the film’s old-school yet flawless visual trickery.         There is one memorable sequence in particular towards the end of the film which involves a rotating room used to create the illusion of characters climbing walls     and ceiling (heralding the re-occurrence of the Flashlight effect), which is extremely well done.

quiet earth routledge lawrence smith

The late Bruno Lawrence (who also had a hand in writing the screenplay) was a much-loved New Zealand actor who was best known here in Australia for his recurring TV role in the popular current affairs satire Frontline. And as much as I enjoyed Lawrence in that particular role, his performance here, I must admit, isn’t entirely convincing – which is perhaps my biggest issue with the movie. His co-star, the lovely and appealing Alison Routledge on the other hand gives a terrific performance as Joanne (the last woman on Earth) – making it all the more surprising to learn she has only ever appeared in a handful of films. Rounding out the cast is Pete Smith as Api,       a Maori actor here making his big-screen debut (a seasoned performer now with     over twenty credits, he would also appear in Jane Campion’s The Piano and Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors). Playing a potential love interest vying for Joanne’s affections, while harbouring guilt over dark goings-on in his past, Smith conveys     just the right amount of underlying menace, while keeping his character nicely sympathetic.

While the overall tone of the film is fairly somber for the most part, there are moments of levity to lighten the mood – particularly in the first half with Zac all by himself. The scene where he challenges himself to a game of billiards and acts out both opponents is nicely handled – as is the scene where he bursts into a cathedral (while dressed in a silk slip) and threatens to blow away a statue of Jesus if God doesn’t show himself “If you don’t come out – I’ll shoot the kid!”. The pacing does tend to lag a tad in the second act with the arrival of Joanna, but soon picks up again when Api makes an appearance. Although, for me, the most compelling section of the film is the first thirty or so minutes – where Zac gradually realizes he’s all alone and spirals into madness – ultimately proclaiming himself to be master of the world.

I cannot continue without saying something about the deliberately obscure ending.     So if you have yet to see The Quiet Earth and don’t wish to have the ending spoiled – skip ahead to the next paragraph … this is one of those instances where the ending of a film takes on iconic status and reveals itself to be the primary image used in the marketing of the film. As to what it means … okay, so, we are told that Zac, Joanne and Api appear to be the only people left on Earth because all three died at precisely the same moment the Flashlight effect originally occurred: Zac had taken an overdose of pills, Joanne had been electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer and Api was drowned in a river by his jilted best mate. There was also mention made of the dead body of a baby in the hospital where Joanne came to, and we later see corpses of     car accident victims – all of whom, it appears, died a second time after the effect     had passed. At the end of the film, Zac sacrifices himself (by detonating a truck laden with dynamite) in a bid to destroy the ground station and halt the effect from happening again, but is again killed at the precise same moment the effect re-occurs; thus transporting him to another alternate universe where a ringed planet takes the place of a rising sun (which mirrors the opening of the film) and strange cloud formations hang in the distance. Because Joanne and Api were left alive to endure the re-occurrence of the effect, they were unable to travel with Zac to this     new alternate universe and thus perished. And so Zac is, for all intents and purposes, completely and utterly alone – a truly bleak ending if ever there was.

quiet earth church

The crisp, clean photography by James Bartle (eschewing the lurid pop video sensibility of David Blyth’s Death Warmed Up the year before) is truly gorgeous     and the evocative music score by John Charles (Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu) beautifully maintains a tone of eerie grandeur from the opening moments – to the film’s final fade out. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Once Were Warriors and Die Another Day helmer Lee Tamahori receives a first AD credit on The Quiet Earth, having previously worked with Murphy in this capacity on Utu.)

Considering its age, it is surprising just how little The Quiet Earth has actually dated. Although there is an odd ‘aloofness’ to the film, which was also present in Murphy’s earlier Goodbye Pork Pie, which creates an odd distancing effect. Despite this, The Quiet Earth still remains a stand-out of its genre in the classic Twilight Zone tradition.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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